Identity in a Cup

Daniel Francis

Is it the icons of Canadian pop culture—hockey fights, Tim Hortons coffee, Don Cherry’s haberdashery, Rick Mercer’s rants—that reveal the deepest truths about us?

If I told you that I had never had a cup of Tim Hortons coffee, what would you conclude about me? That I am a left-wing, pacifist peace monkey because I do not drink the brew that fuelled our soldiers in Afghanistan? That I am a pretentious yuppie whose knowledge of Italian actually extends no further than Vente and cappuccino? That I condescend to the hard-working folk of our rural communities who are the backbone of the country? That I am, in a word, un-Canadian?

According to Patricia Cormack and James F. Cosgrave, authors of Desiring Canada: CBC Contests, Hockey Violence, and Other Stately Pleasures (University of Toronto Press), a new book about popular culture and national identity, you would be correct to make these assumptions. The absence of Tim Hortons coffee from my daily routine makes me not only unusual—Tim Hortons is the most popular brand in the country—but suspect. After all, “It’s Our Canada, Our Coffee” is one of the chain’s slogans. If I am not drinking “our” coffee, what other subversive habits might I be indulging? And what if I further admit that I am appalled by Don Cherry’s muscular patriotism (not to mention his awful suits), don’t find Rick Mercer funny, and cannot abide the CBC’s relentless attempts to reduce all culture to a list or a contest (viz. the “Greatest Canadian” and Canada Reads)? Well, I might as well turn in my passport on the way out the door. But before I go, a few words in my own defence, borrowing on some of the ideas in Cormack and Cosgrave’s provocative book.

Desiring Canada is a book about how forms of popular culture are conscripted into the nation-building enterprise. In a consumer society, suggest Cormack and Cosgrave, the state itself is a product like any other. It must market itself and its services to its own citizens. But this is a tall order, and one for which the state is not always suited, so it forms a partnership with the private sector and hands over to corporations a greater degree of responsibility for mobilizing the public in support of national ideals. In other words, national identity is privatized. No Canadian icon has taken up the task so energetically as the home of the Timbit®. Other companies have tried to link their brand to the country—the Hudson’s Bay Company, Roots, Canadian Tire—but none has done it as effectively as Tim Hortons. For example, Tims has become the place where politicians of all parties come to press the flesh and stage their photo opportunities because they know that Canadians associate Tims with “Main Street values.” Tims also presents its coffee shops in advertising campaigns as locations where immigrant Canadians discover the customs of their new country. And the company associates itself with the national game by supporting youth hockey and attaching itself to various hockey promotions. But most impressively, Tims has made itself the coffee shop of the Canadian military. In 2006 the company opened an outlet in Afghanistan for Canadian soldiers serving there. Cormack and Cosgrave recall that General Rick Hillier, chief of defence staff at the time, remarked on “the superb relationship between two great Canadian institutions,” seemingly equating the Canadian armed forces, i.e. the Canadian State, and a chain of donut restaurants. Tim Hortons is not just reflecting Canadian values; it has become a place where a version of national identity is created.

Inevitably in a book about national identity, hockey and the CBC play a central role. The Mother Corp. and its contests come in for particular attention in Desiring Canada. Cormack and Cosgrave argue that contests are a crucial part of the CBC’s attempts to establish itself as the place where Canadians find out who they are. According to the slogan “Canada Lives Here,” CBC radio and television are home base for Canadians. The contests, inane as they sometimes appear to be, reinforce the network’s role as the authority on national identity. What is our best book? Who is the greatest Canadian? What are the Seven Wonders of Canada? The CBC will answer all these questions (which quite possibly no one but a CBC producer would think to ask), and in the process it will define and defend the national identity. “The idea that Canada needs explaining to Canadians is a persistent theme on the Canadian cultural landscape,” write Cormack and Cosgrave, “a theme that serves to perpetuate the ‘crisis’ of identity.” Even if no firm answers ever emerge, even if the “crisis” never gets resolved, it doesn’t matter. It is the endless conversation itself, not a particular conclusion, that establishes the CBC as the go-to place for thinking about the Canadian question.

A major part of the CBC’s claim to cultural importance is its link to hockey. “The importance of hockey in Canada… points to how sport can generate strong collective emotions and nationalistic fervour in ways that only the most charismatic politicians and intense political movements can match,” write Cormack and Cosgrave. “Hockey Night in Canada” is the shrine at which Canadians worship every Saturday, and the CBC has been hosting it on television since 1952. More recently the network has been presenting “Hockey Day in Canada,” a program that reaffirms our identity as a blue-collar nation with small-town values as opposed to the latte-sucking cosmopolitanism of an urban dude like myself. Through the CBC, the state is using hockey to define an identity for Canada—tough, masculine, nostalgic, unpretentious. Don Cherry, the game’s resident intellectual, provides for viewers a convenient list of all the people who fit beneath the Canadian umbrella—soldiers and their supporters, dog lovers, sentimental patriots, uncompromising free enterprisers, and all the weak sisters who don’t—Swedes, left-wing pinkos, pacifists. Even hockey fights—much condemned but also much condoned—are presented as a uniquely Canadian form of aggression. The rink is a venue where violence is tolerated, even encouraged; where citizens of the “Peaceable Kingdom” affirm their cultural identity by watching a couple of goons beat each other’s brains out.

“I’m the fucking glue that holds it [Canada] together,” Don Cherry once declared. Can such a ludicrous claim possibly be true? Cormack and Cosgrave suggest that it may be, at least to the extent that Mr. Cherry’s rock ’em sock ’em, hail-to-the-troops style of nationalism seems to represent a brand that many Canadians embrace. Watching Coach’s Corner, drinking Tim Hortons coffee, listening to the CBC—these are all activities in which Canadians find their pleasures and feel their identity. Of course those of us who share different pleasures do not have to surrender our passports. Canada is a tolerant country; there is always room for us out on the margins. But in the identity sweepstakes, at least for now, it feels like we are holding a losing ticket.

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Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis is a writer and historian. He is the author of two dozen books, including The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Arsenal Pulp Press). He lives in North Vancouver. Read more of his work at


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